Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Stone Chisel

before 16th century
Guatemala, Mesoamerica
Maya (?)
Length 1-1/4 in.
Credit Line:
Bequest of Arthur M. Bullowa, 1993
Accession Number:
Not on view
Greenstone axe heads, commonly known as “celts,” were some of the most important works of art across ancient Mesoamerica and Central America. Created from jadeite mined from the Motagua River Valley of southern Guatemala, or using local green stones from highland Mexico, celts were first created by the Olmec peoples of the Gulf Coast after 1000 B.C. The Olmec conceived of green celts as sprouts of maize and thus “planted” celts in dedicatory offerings, activating ceremonial spaces and perpetuating agricultural fertility.

For the later Maya peoples, celts also served as dedicatory materials, but more so as adornments for the royal bodies of kings and queens. Often the celts would be thinned into celt-shaped plaques, strung together in pairs and triads in order to create belt assemblages that would have clinked with the sound of jades striking one another. Tombs from the Classic Period (ca. AD 250-900) contain celts of jadeite and various greenstones from Central Mexico to the southern Maya area, in what is now Honduras.

Celts also held value for ancient peoples in Central America, including Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. Costa Rican deposits are especially rich with greenstone celts, often having been split into halves, thirds, or sixths, and then drilled with a transverse whole so that the celt-shaped pendant could be worn. Sometimes the Costa Rican materials were clearly traded down from Mesoamerica; Olmec and Maya motifs remain on some of the reworked pendants recovered further south. The celts were often transformed into anthropomorphic or avian characters, but tended to always retain a bladed shape. Though the original meaning of Olmec and Maya celts related to the production of maize may have been lost when they reached Costa Rica, greenstone as a valuable material endured well into the late 1st millennium A.D.

James Doyle, 2016

Further Reading
Taube, Karl, and Reiko Ishihara-Brito 2012 From Stone to Jewel: Jade in Ancient Maya Religion and Rulership. In Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Joanne Pillsbury, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito, and Alexandre Tokovinine, eds. Washington, Dumbarton Oaks, pp. 135–53.

Taube, Karl 2004 Olmec Art At Dumbarton Oaks. Washington, Dumbarton Oaks
[Alan Winston, New York]; Arthur M. Bullowa, New York, until (d.)1993

Taube, Karl A. Olmec art at Dumbarton Oaks. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2004.

Taube, Karl A., and Reiko Ishihara-Brito. "From Stone to Jewel: Jade in Ancient Maya Religion and Rulership." In Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks, edited by Joanne Pillsbury, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito, and Alexandre Tokovinine. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, No. 4. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2012, pp. 134–53.

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